Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov has submitted his letter of resignation on 5 September, confirming rumors of his dismissal. Rustem Umerov, the current Chairman of Ukraine’s State Property Fund, is tapped to replace him. Why is the man responsible for Ukraine’s defense capabilities amid a war with Russia leaving this key post, and who is Umerov? Here is what Ukrainian experts are saying.
A trace of corruption scandals
“The [defense] ministry needs new approaches and other formats of interaction with both the military and society at large,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an address, announcing Reznikov’s replacement by Umerov.
The dismissal of Ukraine’s defense minister came as no surprise. The whiff of corruption accusations had plagued the ministry since the winter of 2023, when journalists published army food procurement contracts at inflated prices. Reznikov denied the accusations, claiming that the items that caused the most criticism were due to a technical mistake.
The food procurement scandal prompted a resignation and transparency drive, but Reznikov managed to keep his position despite rumors that he would be replaced by spy chief Kyrylo Budanov.
MPs from President Zelenskyy’s faction Servant of the People explained then that Reznikov stayed because of the risks that this poses for the continued supply of weapons from Ukraine’s military allies ahead of a meeting in the Ramstein format where support for Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive would be discussed.
Another corruption scandal occurred in August 2023, when investigative journalists accused the Defense Ministry of buying jackets for the army at inflated prices. Particularly, they claimed that the price of the jackets rose threefold during their delivery, and that jackets that were supposed to be for the winter were actually summer jackets.
Reznikov denied the accusations and proposed an edgy deal: if an independent investigation proves he was in the wrong, he would resign. In the opposite case, one of his accusers, journalist Mykhailo Tkach, would stop doing journalism for three years, and another accuser, head of the parliamentary anti-corruption committee Anastasiia Radina, would step down.
Both Tkach and Radina declined the deal. However, the scandal might have prompted the President’s Office to proceed with Reznikov’s dismissal.
Following the negative media fallout, Zelenskyy declared a war on wartime corruption, equating it with treason. As well, commenting on the corruption scandal, President of Lithuania Gitanas Nausėda, known for his overwhelming support for Ukraine, nevertheless stated that corruption in Ukraine deals a blow to decisions on arming the country in the West.
The extent of Reznikov’s wrongdoing in both corruption scandals is unclear. Speaking to Ukrinform, he dismissed the January 2023 food procurement scandal, claiming that since no state agencies who probed the accusations had not opened criminal charges, no crime was committed. However, prosecutors told that they had established that the Defense Ministry had spent $11.6 mn on bad-quality food packages for soldiers in a contract that violated Ukrainian law.
The accusations regarding the procurement of jackets have yet to be properly investigated. However, the reputational damage had been done, and it is likely one of the reasons for Reznikov’s dismissal.
Yet, some experts believe that the real reason is not in the scandal with eggs and jackets but lies elsewhere. Political analyst Oleksandr Kochetkov has told Focus that at the start of 2023, funds were spent on intermediaries that purchased weapons of insufficient quality and at amounts lower than stated in the contracts. Ukraine’s partners had also leveled accusations of corruption privately to the president, who was finally forced to respond, the analyst said.
From Stingers to F-16
Since taking office in 2023, Oleksii Reznikov was known in the West as an outspoken advocate for Ukraine’s defense needs. Even before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, he called for Ukraine to receive offensive weapons, despite initial resistance from some allies.
A lawyer by training, Reznikov found an approach to Ukraine’s western allies.
Since April 2022, Reznikov has hosted “Ramstein”-format meetings where about 50 defense ministers discuss Ukraine’s military requirements.
Following 14 such diplomatic gatherings, Ukraine’s defense forces have received tanks like the Leopard 2, air defenses like Patriot, NASAMS, and IRIS-T, among other equipment. A decision was also made on American F-16 fighter jets – pilots and engineers are already training, and the jets will be delivered to Ukraine afterward.
Behind the success of Ukraine’s rearmament was Reznikov’s ability to find common ground with Ukraine’s allies, political analyst Oleksandr Kochetkov told the Ukrainian outlet Focus. While states made political decisions on delivering types of weapons, the amount and dates of deliveries were decided at Ramstein meetings, and Ukraine’s former defense minister was a huge part of the success.
“When in November 2021, being newly appointed as the minister, I flew to Washington and asked for Stingers, they refused me, saying it was impossible. But I said it was possible and that they would give them to us; I was confident that we would get them, and we did get them in January from Lithuania, but with Washington’s permission,” Reznikov said in an interview with Ukrinform. “And when I asked for 155 mm artillery, I was sure they would give it to us. Although we were refused, we were given it. When I asked for MLRS, which are M270s and HIMARS, they said it was categorically impossible, but I was confident. I say, ‘You will give them to us anyway, let’s start training our crews now.’ And in the end, they gave them to us. The same was true for the entire list — Leopards, Patriots — I was convinced that they would give them to us, and they are still giving them to us.“
Reznikov’s contribution to Ukraine’s defense was acknowledged by now-former UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace, who stated on Twitter that he was crucial to unlocking international support:
@oleksiireznikov Good luck Oleksii! You have been fantastic for Ukraine. From the very start we worked together and without you we couldn’t have unlocked the international support! Few will know your full contribution during this war but for those of us who do – Thank you— Rt. Hon Ben Wallace MP (@BWallaceMP) September 4, 2023
Upon becoming minister, Reznikov immediately spoke of reforms to army operations. He managed to continue increasing the Ukrainian military’s interoperability with NATO forces, claiming to implement one-fourth of all of NATO’s standards, even surpassing some member states. His ministry also works on digitizing data for military medical commissions and territorial recruitment centers.
According to Focus, the list of Reznikov’s achievements also includes changing Western mindsets: not only does Ukraine need to adopt NATO standards, but Alliance countries also have something to learn from Ukraine.
Rustem Umerov: Crimean Tatar responsible for the “Muslim world”
In his televised address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced Rustem Umerov as the successor to outgoing Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov. The 41-year-old Umerov currently heads the State Property Fund of Ukraine and has maintained a relatively low public profile, yet reportedly has approval from all of Ukrainian society. He is also a representative of the Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of Crimea, occupied by Russia since 2014.
An economist by training who worked in telecommunications and investment, Umerov was also active in the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People as an assistant on human rights and international affairs to Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev. In 2019, Umerov was elected to parliament as part of musician Sviatoslav Vakarchuk’s Voice party and authored, inter alia, a law on Ukraine’s indigenous people, including Crimean Tatars, which drew the ire of Vladimir Putin.
After Russia’s invasion, Umerov joined Ukraine’s delegation in negotiations with Russia. In July 2022, he headed the provisional investigative commission to monitor the use of military aid to Ukraine. He also worked on prisoner exchanges, flying to Saudi Arabia during a complex exchange last fall after being appointed head of the State Property Fund in September 2022. He was also engaged in organizing a peace summit in Jeddah, where Ukraine had promoted its 10-step peace plan to the “Global South.”
“Umerov has a good reputation, he has performed well at the head of the State Property Fund, remaining in office without scandals and conflicts. According to various sources of information, it was he who took part in a number of international negotiations, including the search for ammunition in non-Western countries. It is said that he is one of three people in the state leadership with whom Turkish President Erdogan can communicate directly. The other two are the president and the head of his office. It seems that in Zelenskyy’s team, Umerov is unofficially responsible for negotiations with representatives of the Muslim world,” political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told Focus.
With this background, Umerov now has every chance of becoming defense minister, despite being a civilian – common practice for NATO countries Ukraine aspires to join. Since the war began, Ukraine’s system has Generals commanding the fighting while the Defense Ministry handles logistics and policies supporting the war effort without interfering in operations.
By reputation, Umerov is intelligent and competent, boasting many domestic and foreign contacts. Significantly, he speaks Turkish in addition to English, has good Ankara ties, and is an adept communicator. Importantly in today’s Ukraine, he has close relations with presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak, considered Ukraine’s most powerful man, Sviatoslav Khomenko writes in BBC.
According to Khomenko, some in Kyiv also see Umerov’s expected appointment as a strong message from Zelenskyy to Western experts lately floating scenarios where Ukraine cedes territory to Russia. As a Crimean Tatar human rights defender long active on Crimean issues, Umerov embodies Ukraine’s determination to regain all its land.
Ukraine’s parliament must formally approve the defense minister change, but few expect problems securing approval this week.